A Small New Future 

ALEC HANLEY BEMIS on the casualties and survivors in the war between the Cynics and the True Believers

Art by Faile

“The record industry discovered some time ago that there aren’t that many people who actually like music. For a lot of people, music’s annoying, or at the very least they don’t need it. They discovered if they could sell music to a lot of those people, they could sell a lot more records.”

—T-Bone Burnett

A weekend at sea

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I’ve traveled to the southeast coast of England, having booked a weekend stay at the Camber Sands outpost of a cheesy U.K. resort chain called Pontin’s. Several dozen pasty attendants stalk the grounds in blue-and-yellow windbreakers. They look like scurvy-ridden basketball players in warmup suits. There’s something familiar about the Pontin’s logo on their breast pockets. I struggle with déjà vu until I fixate, and realize it’s almost identical to the logo for the Pokémon cartoon. Indeed, the mood of the place feels a bit like the stage set for a live-action Pokémon film, one that might at any moment break out into arty triple-X action. It’s a fetid, dour place, particularly so on the rainy afternoon on which I arrive.

The strange thing is, the people around me seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s obvious that no one is visiting for the charms of this seaside town — the fried food, the Technicolor alcohol, a few rounds of miniature golf. Instead they’re here for the second weekend of All Tomorrow’s Parties, a festival of independent music programmed 10 hours a day, for the next three days, on the holiday village’s two large stages. No one frets over the weather, because everyone will forgo the beach in favor of witnessing sets by three dozen of the globe’s most famous cult music acts. The legion of indie-music fans will leave with their record-geek ardor intensified and sickly pallor intact.

The music is a bit like my initial vision of a Pokémon skin flick — underground and mainstream all at once. Day 1, curated by former Pavement front man Stephen Malkmus, features a lineup drawn from today’s college-radio charts — Modest Mouse, the Shins, Fiery Furnaces. It’s notable that indie rock’s most popular bands have accepted Malkmus’ invitation to play this godforsaken place, but even more so is the presence of two bands from the ’80s — Mission of Burma, a wiry Boston post-punk band, and ESG, a primitive funk group from the South Bronx. Both were little celebrated in their prime and have been mostly dormant for 20 years. Both have reunited, their reputations blooming as influences on the strain of obscure pop music currently going through an unprecedented renaissance.

The subsequent day is a maelstrom of noise featuring drum-bass duo Lightning Bolt, indie film star Vincent Gallo, and Angelblood, whose main attraction is a warbling blonde in a full body stocking. It’s capped off by performances from MC Dizzee Rascal — Britain’s answer to 50 Cent — and a shambling pop band known mostly for their name. They’re called Fuck. This may be a bit of programming cleverness, since the final day features Jackie-O Motherfucker — an unreconstructed noise band from upstate New York — opening up for Love With Arthur Lee, a ’60s peer of the Doors.

The weekend feels like a rebuke to cynical rock-star machinations and industry pigeonholes. The audience is ecstatic. The musicians are in good spirits. Many of them, including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, can be seen walking among the audience, paying close attention to their fellow performers.

Moore presides over the clamor of the event like a proud papa. His band was responsible for selecting day 2’s lineup. And as a group widely hailed as the godfathers of alternative rock, Sonic Youth is having a moment in the sun. The whole weekend is a series of alternatives.

“This song is called ‘Stones,’” Moore announces from the stage when it’s his band’s turn to play. “It’s about stones — not the Rolling Stones, though we like all those English beat bands from the ’60s.”

“I think they’re still together,” interjects guitarist Lee Ranaldo. The 48-year-old Ranaldo was schoolboy age when many of the classic early rock bands were in their prime.

“Yeah, they have that Tommy Hilfiger sound, and that’s cool,” answers Moore, referring to the oft-lampooned corporate sponsor of tours by David Bowie and the Rolling Stones.

“Cool for them,” spits Ranaldo. He sounds like a man on a mission to destroy corporate rock, and, most surprising, convinced his mission just might succeed.

The small new future

All Tomorrow’s Parties was full of odd conjunctions — hip-hop stars playing with indie rockers, bizarre noise bands warming up for ’60s veterans — but it would have seemed even odder a few years ago. The 21st century has found the music industry reeling and confused. In the last six years, a series of mergers have brought the number of major labels — the core of the corporate record business — down from six to four. Universal absorbed Polygram in 1998. After a recent thumbs-up from European regulators, BMG is set to merge with Sony. Now rumors abound that EMI and Warner Music may join forces and bring that number to three. Five years ago, people would paint this as a sign of the corporate industry’s dominance. Today it seems more like a circling of the wagons.

Also in this issue ALEC HANLEY BEMIS debunks three myths about today’s record industry!

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